This morning I came to a realization that shocked me and that made me quite painfully aware of my own biases. Already a couple of times I had come across this headline on twitter: She Was a Rising Star at a Major University. Then a Lecherous Professor Made Her Life Hell. Every time I saw it I couldn't help but think: Oh man, another person who was oppressed/harrassed/assaulted in whatever way by some man who has the power to do so and still goes unpunished for way too long. But it didn't touch me enough to read the piece. Or to retweet it or say what I think about it. It just made me a little numb that this just keep happening over and over and over it seems.
And then someone tweeted the name of the victim in this case. And I recognized the name and realized that I had seen her present her work and I was so impressed with her. She was energetic and funny and a really good presenter who did very interesting work. All of a sudden I cared so much more about this case. And that is the part that shocked me.
Because someone shouldn't have to be energetic and funny and a good presenter for me to care. I should always care when someone is oppressed or assaulted or harrased, whether they are boring or funny to me and whether I like them or not. It made me think of whenever men say things like:"We should care about women because they are our daughters and wives and sisters" and I think to myself: no, we should care because they are people. Yet I do the exact same thing in my head: I care more about people that I know and/or like.
How can I change this attitude and make sure I don't stop caring about cases like this one? By reading the statistics about how often women are sexually harrassed in science that make me angry every time I look at them. By linking to all the pieces online that show how hard it is to file these complaints against established men when you are the victim, but also how there are kind people that stand by the victims. Although at the end of the day the question remains whether you can ever really win in a case like this.
The other day I watched the 2016 Disney movie "Vaiana*" with my two sons. We all really liked it and I think my kids have watched it about five times since we watched it together. For those three people who haven't seen it or heard about it: it's a Polynesian inspired movie about the daughter of an island chief who gets chosen by the ocean to find the half god Maui and save the islands.
However, around two thirds into the movie, Vaiana realizes that it is a very difficult task and at some point she talks to the ghost of her grandmother who inspired her to go on this quest and says that it is just too hard. At that point, I thought how funny and awesome at the same time it would be if the movie would just end there. The lesson would be that sometimes, you find yourself on a very difficult journey, in the presence of a narcissistic half god (wait, is this a metaphor for some academic labs?!) and you realize that it is just too hard. And that it is fine to realize this and decide you're going to do something else. You've learned things on the journey that have made you stronger and more experienced, but at the same time you realize that this journey is not for you. Wouldn't it be good for kids to learn that there is no shame in deciding to give up sometimes?
But of course, this is a Disney film and not real life. So I guess I'm not really spoiling anything by telling that it does not actually stop there.
* when writing this post I found out that the movie is actually called Moana in English speaking countries and Vaiana in some (?) European countries.
It has been much quieter here on the blog than I had hoped, but the first half of this year has significantly kicked my butt. Every time I tried to put my thoughts about that on paper it did not lead to anything coherent and/or blogable. But then I had a really nice break over the summer, which even allowed me to read books!
Living a Feminist Life - Sara Ahmed: I had been following Sara Ahmed on twitter for a while but so far I had never read any feminist literature. Reading Sara's book was great because she is able to put in words what it means to experience sexism and racism and what it feels like to address those issues, sometimes over and over. Her style is interesting, as it very much reads like a flow of thoughts, which made some parts hard to follow at first.
Homo Deus - Yuval Noah Harari: This was a gift from my brother and is actually the sequal to the book Sapiens, but I started with this one and have Sapiens still waiting for me. In this book, Harari talks about how things like famine, plague and war have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges for human beings. I thought that the first part of this book sounded a bit 'splainy to me, but I was especially impressed with the second part of the book where Harari talks about how we see the human brain as a collection of algorithms, that cannot compete with the algorithms that humans are creating at the moment, or will create in the future. I was impressed by his ability to think outside of what we currently know and experience and describe what the future might be like when computer-algorithms become better than biological algorithms (which I guess is already the case right now for some specific tasks).
The angel's game (in Dutch: Het spel van de engel) - Carlos Ruiz Safon - This book had been sitting on my bookshelf for nearly 8 years. Together with my husband and brother I had given it to my grandmother for her 80th birthday. She brought it on vacation with her into the mountains, read until page 28 and died in her sleep of a massive stroke. My mom wrote down where my grandmother was in the book after she passed away when she drove to meet my grandfather at their vacation destination and later gave the book back to me. It took me 8 years to not get so incredibly sad when I picked up this book that I could actually start reading it and think about the awesome person my grandmother was, and how weird it still is that she isn't around anymore. With respect to the book: it is a good vacation book, because the story just pulls you in. But it is not a mind-blowing story and it sounds and feels very similar to Shadow of the Wind, the bestseller Ruiz Safon wrote earlier.
What about you, dear reader of this blog (if you are still around), have you read any of these books or do did you read anything else worth sharing during the summer?
There's having to take time off for parental leave. There's not always being able to stay for networking after work. There's having to stay home when your kid is sick. And the list goes on and on why becoming a parent means sometimes not being able to be at work or working. However, it is still the case that for mothers this compromises their career more than for fathers, resulting in less pay and an overall perception of being less competent: an issue called the motherhood penalty, which was also highlighted when Gina Baucom asked for examples of crappy things that are being said to women academics the other day.
The other day I got a bit more insight into why this could be on a level I hadn't considered yet. Someone I know had her second kid about a 1,5 year ago and the first time year had been quite a struggle: she was tired, also moved to a different house and at the same time was making a huge effort to perform at the same level she did previously. This nearly resulted in a burn out, except that she had a very kind and caring manager who sent her home at just the right time and told her to take it easier. At this point she was crying, tired and just not the strong person she was otherwise.
After this first year, she started to feel like her normal self again: more sleep, normal hormone levels, etc. However, at the same time she noticed that her manager still treated her like the more fragile person who needed help and protection. Her manager would not give her the more challenging projects even though she was very capable of taking those on again. And ultimately her male colleague who had been there shorter got a promotion and she didn't. Seemingly because her manager could not get rid of the notion they had of her being weak. She felt that not only did she have to fight to get back into all her projects, she had to fight double hard to erase her manager's notion of her being a weak person.
I'm not sure there is an answer here in how to navigate this path, but I'd be curious to hear what you would advice here, dear readers!
It's been quiet here for longer than I had intended. We moved to a new house 2 months ago, which was right after a really busy period at work. This doing my own job plus the new work thing was kicking my ass quite a bit. Mostly because I started by trying to do most of my own job but then squeezed in two days a week, because the other days were spent in the work thing. One major thing I've learned is to be much clearer about what I can and can't do in the time that I have.
The new house is great, and the new work thing (which by now is not super new anymore) is also great. Which now poses the dilemma of which work thing I like most - in case an actual job opens up in the new work department, which might happen but is still unclear when. My thoughts about this are not yet coherent enough to write down here. So expect more posts about all these questions and doubts: how to figure out what you want, how to determine which aspects of a job give you energy and which are energy drains, etc. And then there's the difficulty of moving within a company while still keeping everyone (or at least most people) around you happy.
As most of you know, I like my current job but am also looking to climb the career ladder within the company that I work for. Recently, a really exciting position opened up and I have expressed my interest in that position to a couple of people. The person who would be my manager in that new position even revealed that I was on her list of people that she thought about to fill this position and she gave me advice on how to tailor my resume to apply for this position (it will be advertised internally and externally). However, the person above her has indicated that they are looking for a profile that I don't entirely fit.
I have also talked to my manager about it and he basically told me that yes, I should apply to show my interest, but also that he thought I was too junior for this position. He told me that he was afraid that if I would get the position, I would fail. On the one hand I agree with him that it is a big step up, because it is a complex job with many interactions with different people inside and outside of the company plus managing a small team and a budget. I don't do many of these things currently, so perhaps my manager is right. Or is he just trying to make me not feel too disappointed when I apply and don't get this position? But mostly, I feel a bit demotivated by his comments and I continuously wonder if they are actually helpful or harmful? And would my manager say the same things to a man...?
Years ago I went to our annual PhD retreat and one of PhD students from a different lab presented data from a screen they did. They talked about the model and the screen and just when we thought things were getting excited and they would talk about their findings, they showed data about "protein X". They described some of the features of said protein, but did not want to disclose the name, in fair of getting scooped.
I thought this was overly cautious and unfair to the audience, but the other day I heard an even more striking story of someone who was this vague about their data in a labmeeting of their own lab. For months they presented data without wanting to tell to their lab members the identity of a protein that was at the center of their project. It makes me wonder: is the lack of input you can expect from your lab mates when you hide critical information worth the reduced risk of getting scooped by someone close to you?
For the past 3,5 month, I have been working in medical affairs* for two days a week, picking up some of the tasks from somebody who is on maternity leave and learning a ton about what happens in this area of the company. In this company, R&D is in one location and all of the commercial functions are together in a different location, which leads my R&D colleagues to make all sorts of comments about me "moving to the dark side". In medical affairs - at least with some of the tasks - you're the intermediate between R&D and marketing.
At R&D, we generally joke about how we do all the serious stuff and marketing is adding some frivolities in order to sell more of the stuff that we make. But now that I'm experiencing life on the dark side, I get more insight in the things that marketeers are really good at. And one of those things is -as the marketeers call it- word crafting. It turns out that making materials together with a marketeer is like next level twitter: how can you use the least amount of words to convey the most impactful message? In reality, this means going over the words 10 or more times, going back and forth with new ideas on how to change a word or how to rewrite the whole sentence.
And learning better how to do this and how important this is, I look with new eyes at my own sloppy, barely edited writing. Is this the reason I've been blogging less the past couple of weeks? Because I see how I throw stuff online without properly making sure every sentence is at the right place and in the right order? And I wonder if it would do more scientists good to do a short internship in marketing to learn more about the art of word crafting?
*I realize my pseud is getting thin, but in order to write about what I'm learning here, it is important to reveal what I'm actually doing.
It has been a busy couple weeks, with the mistake I made at work, the temporary new role at work that I'm doing part-time next to my own job, travel to 2 meetings abroad and the fact that we get the key to our new house today (the first time we are owning a home ever!). In fact, it has been so busy that I completely forgot to celebrate my 5 year bloggiversary on March 1st!
So to make up for that, here is some confetti for you dear reader! And my vow to be back here more often for more work-life balance thoughts and other first world problems 🙂
Last Thursday I found out I had made a mistake at work. It wasn't a life-or-death mistake, but it was a mistake that was big enough it affected a project I work on, including people outside the company. It wasn't entirely my fault, but it surely felt like it. I talked about it with people in my team, including my manager and left in tears before the end of the day. I felt so bad on Thursday that I wondered if I would dare to step into the office on Monday again.
I was awake half the night wondering how upset people would be with me and asked my manager if I could call him on Friday. I told him how bad I felt, especially for the people that were affected too* and that I wanted to learn from this mistake and look at how we could do better from now on. I cried when I was on the phone with him. I guess part of why this got to me so much is the amount of work that I'm doing, that JUST fits in the time I have with very little room for error.
On Monday, I dragged myself to the office, half dreading what people would say, half rested and ready to try and make it right - or at least be pro-active in repairing the damage. And then I was surprised how supportive everyone was. A friend at work said she had experienced something similar and advised me to look to the future. My manager saying that to him it didn't particularly matter whose fault it was but that we need to learn from how this happened to prevent it from happening again. And the people that I work with were helpful in fixing what can still be fixed and doing it better from now on.
I still need to talk about the mistake to a higher boss who is not often around and I get a bit nervous thinking about this, but I guess what I've learned this week is that making a mistake (even one that feels like the end of the world) is something that happens to many people and is something you can learn from.
*I've made mistakes before when I was in academia and I discovered that for me at least, a mistake feels much less horrible when it affects mostly yourself then when it affects those around you, and especially when you represent a company and make the company look bad.